Once upon a time I was a bright, shiny, hopeful American living in Ireland who thought the U.S. Embassy in Dublin would be my friend. I thought if I was honest, upfront and cooperative the embassy staff would help me navigate the immigration process for my Irish husband. I cringe at my naiveté.
The Obamas visited Ireland in 2011 and by then I had spent five years dealing with the consulate section of the embassy for my own passport, my husband’s tourist visas, an approved petition for an alien relative, and a failed immigrant visa application. I have to admit by 2011, I was a twisted old crone cackling with bitter glee while President Obama’s limo ‘the Beast’ sat stuck on the embassy’s exit ramp. I took pleasure in imagining the unpleasant and inefficient civil servants scurrying around the embassy shouting into phones while the media watched the limo wedged on a ramp outside the hideous building.
A famous architect designed the embassy but the result is a concrete eyesore which sticks out like an industrial lump amongst the Georgian brick in Ballsbridge. There is nothing friendly about the sixties-styled circle tucked behind a giant black iron fence that must be accessed by 'queuing' on the street corner until you’re admitted into a security cubicle out front and frisked in case you have an electronic toothbrush in your overnight bag that might be used to scrub a security guard to death.
Maybe the interior is lovely. I wouldn’t know. Us non-presidential Americans are only admitted to a DMV style office complete with plastic waiting chairs, water cooler and glass partitions. The building is gigantic by Ballsbridge Embassy standards, yet their American services section and visa section, both of which are apparently so busy they can’t reply to emails for weeks or months at a time or allow us to actually speak to a human, is housed in a trailer-sized room stuck onto the embassy like a wart. There are never enough chairs for everyone waiting to sit. It would be terrible if people were comfortable for even a second while dealing with visa issues.
The prison atmosphere should have tipped me off to the attitude of the staff and management of the embassy, but I maintained a highly unusual optimism that the American staff would of course assist me, a U.S. citizen living in Ireland, to ensure I could bring my fiancé then husband back to the U.S. to visit my family and later on apply for an immigrant visa. The only thing that makes me feel less mortified by my 25-year-old idiocy is the number of people, both Irish and American, who also assume that my husband would be welcome to live in the U.S. with me now that we had been married a few years. I explain with uncharacteristic patience that spouses receive a preference by just being allowed to apply for an immigrant visa in the first place, but that’s where the consideration ends.
My husband went to Boston when he was 21 and overstayed his tourist visa just long enough to accrue a ten year ban on U.S. immigration and travel under the visa waiver program. His reasons for going and for overstaying are his story to tell. At this stage in my life, I don’t think much justification is required for a young person wanting to live and work short-term in another country; in fact I would strongly encourage it and did myself in New Zealand (some countries make it simple).
There wasn’t a legal way for him to do this at the time and he took his chances. That being said we both expected and accepted there would be consequences for his overstaying his visa for both of us individually and our relationship. In fact, rather than risk being turned around at Shannon airport by immigration and pre-empting the eventual visa application process after we were married, my husband applied for a tourist visa before traveling to the U.S. again through the embassy in Dublin and, in effect, confessed to his immigration offense. This was stupid (and my fault).
In April the embassy in Dublin approved my husband’s immigrant visa. The process was horrendous. I know relative to the majority of immigrants coming to or the U.S. we had an easy time, especially considering we weren’t under any major financial, political or personal pressure. Even so, I am left baffled, frustrated and disheartened about the state of U.S. immigration policy.
What does making it as miserable, inefficient and confusing as possible achieve for the U.S. and its citizens and residents? Does it make America safer and more prosperous? Does it save tax payers’ money? Or is it a reflection of a new brand of aggressive ‘like or leave it’ American nationalism that is reflected in politics? I don’t have the answers but I did learn a few depressing lessons for anyone embarking on the process.
Lesson #1 – There is no room for honesty when dealing with bureaucrats or immigration officials.
We never considered the undocumented route and it wasn’t a good option for our family, but if we had needed to move, rather than wanted to move, this is cheaper, faster and simpler and there are armies of attorneys in the U.S. just waiting to take your money to file a change of status, etc once you arrive under a tourist visa. Do not think that ‘doing the right thing’ or ‘going by the book’ will make things easier or there is some inherent reward in the process for not going down the undocumented or illegal route.
This is where an attorney would come in handy, but please be careful. Try and get a few personal recommendations as immigration law, like any other area with terrible regulatory systems, is particularly attractive for unscrupulous attorneys to overcharge, perform shoddy work and have little accountability. I managed to complete the whole process without an attorney, but I did consult lawyers at different times for advice. I even hired an Irish immigration lawyer based in the U.S. in a moment of panic that cost me $420 for about 20 minutes of advice, but the firing saved me $3500. I balked when I realized her hourly rate was $350 and she only took cash.
Lesson #2 – There is no common sense or (apparent) logic in any dealings you will have with United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). I am using the USCIS as a catchall for the different bodies and offices that deal with immigration for the Department of Homeland Security. It’s too complicated and boring to go through them all here, but in my dealings they were all similar. The National Visa Center based in New Hampshire was slightly easier to get in touch with than others but that’s not saying much.
If you think something makes sense or is self-evident, than USCIS will misunderstand or do the opposite. Explain everything in letters attached to all documents or applications you submit. They will most likely not read and or still misunderstand but at least you will feel self-righteous in your indignation when this happens. This is all you will have to keep you going at points so don’t underestimate the worth of self-righteousness when a bureaucratic system is stacked against you.
My husband had to apply for tourist visas every time he wanted to travel to the U.S. This involved making an appointment in Dublin at the Embassy, traveling up from Kerry, forms, photos, fees each time. We both had plenty of evidence of an established life in Ireland and no motive for absconding on a tourist visa, as well as enough of a paper trail to make him easy to track down in Maine if he did. After the third tourist visa (and track record of coming back Ireland), you might think the process would be easier. While it had taken a week for the visa (it’s just a paper stuck into your passport) the last one required a four-hour wait in the embassy just to submit the application. The visa (and passport) didn’t arrive for six months. Obviously our planned vacation had come and gone.
Lesson #3 – Neither the U.S. Embassy in Ireland nor the United States Citizen and Immigration Service care that you are an American that want to move home with their family. You are at a disadvantage if you are a citizen living outside the U.S. Applications outside the U.S. used to be much simpler, but since 2009 applications are not processed by the U.S. Embassy in Dublin until the interview stages. As bad as they are, USCIS is worse and very difficult to deal with from overseas.
You can ring their phone number and be told by a computer that your wait time is 93 minutes. Is this a reasonable wait time for any service? You can’t call with Skype or by appointment and if you do get someone they act like you are an alien (a real one from outer space because you are filing from abroad) and simply cannot help you. Even the forms which are aimed at non-residents leave no room for non U.S. addresses. I had paperwork returned because I put my U.S. address (of which I have none except for my parents' house until we moved back to the U.S. as was clearly explained in attached letters) in the wrong location.
USCIS documents advise you that if you are living overseas and filing a petition for alien relative and associated forms, then your embassy is your first point of contact for assistance. The embassy will then answer any question by sending on the phone numbers and websites for U.S. offices to keep you going round and round in a nightmare fun fair ride.
Lesson #4 – There is no apparent skill, expertise or specific knowledge required by a staff working under Homeland Security. Mistakes are very common, as are misunderstandings of basic application procedures and simple administrative errors. The many staff I encountered by e-mail, phone, and in-person were in the majority unhelpful and not very knowledgeable. I can’t figure out what skills and knowledge are used in immigration decisions. Surely, there must be some expertise?
My husband’s phone beeped at 4 p.m. the day before his visa interview with an e-mail entitled “Change of time for your Visa Interview.” We both froze while he read it.
It took two years of paperwork, phone calls, and over $2,000 to get as far as scheduling an interview appointment in the U.S. Embassy for 1 p.m. the next day. We had brought our five year old son and scheduled an appointment for his passport to be renewed for 1:30 p.m. It requires the presence of both parents to sign so we all had to travel from Kerry to Dublin for the appointment and I had scheduled it purposely in-line with the interview appointment. We had just checked into our hotel in Dublin having left our house at 8 a.m. The next morning we had to go to the Blackrock Clinic and collect the results of €400 medical exam that was conducted in twenty minutes the week before during another trip to Dublin from Kerry. The embassy insists that the applicant attend one doctor in Dublin and won’t allow the doctor to post or courier the results despite the applicant paying €400. But with one nameless automatic e-mail, the embassy had changed the appointment. I feared it could be in two days time. They would think nothing of making us come back to Dublin two days later. The appointment had been brought forward by two hours and worked out fine for us since we were in Dublin the day before, but if we weren’t we would have had a very difficult time getting to Dublin for the appointment and not even the courtesy of a phone call.
They also ‘misplaced’ my husband’s passport and visa after the whole process was over so while it should have taken a week to return his passport, it ended up taking almost three weeks and multiple e-mails to find out where the passport was. At one point the embassy actually e-mailed him incorrectly to tell him his passport was collected by a courier company that day. I stopped by the courier’s office a couple days later in Tralee and he confirmed my suspicions they’d never collected the passport. Days of unreturned messages to the embassy eventually resulted in an acknowledgment that the visa was never issued and they had made an error. Just to get it sorted, I had to e-mail the American Services unit with the reference ‘Lost Passport’ since they ignore emails to their visa unit for weeks at a time.
Now just to clarify I worked in the public service for years and while I can fully understand the frustration associated with working in a highly regulated and inflexible system, I don’t buy that it’s an excuse to be so unpleasant and unhelpful to the public. Communicating with the public IS your primary purpose for having a job so acting like it’s a huge inconvenience that takes you away from some other very important work is ridiculous. It costs no time or money to be helpful and, in fact, would have saved lots of time in our case if someone had just answered my questions directly and correctly rather than trying to put me off with form responses and links to their website.
One intelligent, skilled professional investigator could have listened to or read my husband’s story, assessed him for risk and verified it through official channels in Ireland in 2-3 hours. This would be a lot more efficient than dozens of bureaucrats in two countries wasting hundreds of salary hours in addition to administration and the army of legal professionals surrounding this field.
My experience as an immigrant in Ireland was very different. Of course there is no comparison between the scale and numbers of immigrants in Ireland and the United States, but I don’t think that accounts completely for the attitude. I originally moved to Ireland on a student visa when I started my Master's degree in Galway. I applied for a student visa with minimal fuss and minimal paperwork. I think it amounted to one visit to an empty and friendly Garda station just outside the city that handled visas.
I got a PPS number (equivalent of social security number) when I was a post-grad student in Galway because students can legally work part-time on a student visa. Once you have a PPS number, you can pay tax and that's all employers really worry about so you can get work and stay as long as allowed per your passport. I worked more than part-time as I was hired on a project basis and then after I graduated I was hired by the local government in Kerry and worked full-time with no questions about my legal status. After I married my Irish husband, I reported myself to the Garda office in Tralee. It took a few visits and phone calls to track down Gerry, the semi-retired Guard with responsibility for immigration. He worked at a window in the lobby of the station and his hours were sporadic. The visits to Gerry were pretty relaxed and entertaining in comparison to the attitude I’ve witnessed in Boston and other U.S. airports and offices. The other immigrants were mostly African and Chinese because there is free movement allowed between EU member states so no need for visas or work permits.
One time I heard Gerry half-heartedly trying to 'interrogate' a Nigerian man about why his address kept changing and the details about his asylum seekers status. The man was giving confused answers and it was pretty obvious to us waiting behind him that he was making up stories in order to hide something else.
Gerry eventually gave-up and stamped his passport with a sigh, "I know you're lying but I'll give you two months to sort it out and come back."
This disorganization and laid-back approach to rules and regulations has a downside (financial regulation for one) and it still infuriates me daily, but I will miss it too. And while yes, I'd rather not have a Nigerian man with an unknown criminal record, a possible false address, identity and zero local knowledge driving me home at 2 a.m. in a taxi; it is nice to be treated as a person by a person with a little common sense and kindness and I’m not sure our officious system makes anyone safer.
In Logan Airport I have been treated with strange suspicion and disdain because I don't live in the U.S. but am American. This is ridiculous. The world is small now. Isn’t it supposed to be a global marketplace? I have to answer aggressive questions about my visit and explain myself for coming home. My husband usually gets pulled off somewhere else to be interrogated because he has a foreign passport.
When I return to Shannon Airport where I have the foreign passport, the police always let me stay with my husband and children even though we have different passports because it makes no sense to split us up. I started explaining my resident’s status one early morning to an older Garda at the passport line and he cut me off with a smile. "Sure, I can see from your stamp that you are living here in Kerry. Welcome Home."
While it’s neither fair nor completely relevant to compare the overall immigration policies in Ireland and the United States, I can’t help but compare my two experiences and wonder what results are achieved by the inefficient, overburdened, costly, and opaque system of immigration in the U.S. I won’t be the first or the last to ask these questions and when we move back to Maine in a few days, the experience will fade quickly as new opportunities and challenges arise, but the experience will influence my future political decisions. The Irish living in America are well placed to improve U.S. immigration policy and I am glad to see they have a strong voice around Obama’s immigration reform and unless I get detained by customs for smuggling Cadbury’s chocolate through Logan Airport, I for one will be adding my voice to the call for immigration reform.